Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent, NRL.com
Dragons v Panthers
WIN Stadium, Wollongong
Sunday, 3pm (AEST)
Last time we checked the NRL app on our phone, there were eight rungs separating the third-placed Panthers and the 11th-placed Dragons. Now, there are any number of premiership-altering situations that can happen between now and when Round 22 ends at fulltime on Monday night.Panthers rematch vital, say improved Dragons
And depending on how the rugby league empire manifests itself over the weekend – and we refuse to rule out a seventh NRL coach pressing the eject button from the next hot seat – those rungs can stretch as far as 11 spots, or condense as close as one.
So when the good media folk describe this 2014 season as the closest competition since Glebe and Newcastle kicked things off in 1908, this very fixture proves it.
It's not exactly do-or-die stuff just yet – although another loss for the Dragons would instantly raise the alarm – but as we've just stated, the difference between a win and a loss is magnified to the size of a mini-continent when the sweet smell of finals hits the late August air.
This is particularly true for the hosts who, after last Saturday's 30-22 defeat to the Roosters, have just about stuck the "must-win" sticker on each of their final five games.
Interim coach Paul McGregor, still unsigned for next season, named an unchanged side for Sunday's clash and added returning pair Dan Hunt and Bronson Harrison on an extended bench.
Coach Ivan Cleary has also recalled a veteran duo in Tim Grant and Kevin Kingston as his 17th and 18th men - but it was more out of necessity than design, with the team losing three more players until January during their measured 22-16 victory over the Bulldogs last week.
Elijah Taylor, Bryce Cartwright and Brent Kite are all just about done for the year, paving the way for Grant, Kingston, Isaah Yeo, Matt Robinson and Ryan Simpkins getting call-ups to keep Penrith's flailing hopes alive.
Get your ticket to NRL Round 22
Watch Out Dragons: No coach treats any decision to gazump the club captain lightly, but Ivan Cleary's dumping of Kevin Kingston in favour of livewire hooker James Segeyaro from Round 9 paid big dividends against the Bulldogs last weekend. The former Cowboy pounced on two tries close to the line – including a signature dummy from close range – taking his tally for the season to 11, all of which have come after the mid-season switch-up. Ironically, the professional Kingston is in line to make his first appearance in over three months, presumably to take up the 60-tackle role vacated by the injured Elijah Taylor.
Watch Out Panthers: Improved second-rower Leeson Ah Mau has been the unsung hero in the Dragons' forward pack all season and, after last week's energetic performance against the Roosters, it was about time we paid him his due.
The late-blooming big fella produced season-highs in runs (14), metres (140) and touches (17) as he helped keep his side in the game against the defending premiers. The former Cowboy has started 16 of 18 games in 2014, including his past nine in the second row.
Plays To Watch: Twice the Dragons wizard in Gareth Widdop came up trumps on left-side raids early last week, putting boot to ball for Brett Morris and then hitting a supreme short ball for Joel Thompson not long after. When they go right however, Benji Marshall is hitting Josh Dugan every time with plenty of good results – Dugan banked 169m against the Roosters, his biggest total in seven games.
For Penrith, Jamal Idris' sojourn into the forward pack lasted just one week, and the big guy seemed all too happy to revert back to the three-quarter line. The former Titan came up with five tackle breaks and 121 metres against the Bulldogs – his best numbers in a month. The Panthers like bringing him back against the grain as he thunders and swats his way across field. Against a smaller pack, watch him try to break loose.
Where It Will Be Won: The Dragons have scored at least four tries in four of their past five games, so you know they're going to post some points. It's whether they can put enough pressure on Penrith's point man in Soward to keep their opposition at bay. Limiting the impact of their former team-mate is the key. Shut him down, you shut the game down.
The History: Played 27; St George-Illawarra 16, Penrith 11. The Panthers' 18-14 win at home in Round 14 gave them five of the past six victories. The Dragons' record does get better on the south coast, where they've won five of the six games since the beginning of the joint venture.
What Are The Odds:
A pretty even betting game. Both sides are receiving support from Sportsbet customers in the 1-12 winning margin markets. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Adam Gee; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Brett Suttor; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: A depleted Panthers side on the road against a desperate Dragons side on home soil has all the makings of a thriller. This is almost too close to call, and in that case, you go with the home team by one point.